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John Santos: Keeper of the Culture

Steve Bryant By

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In a career spanning almost 40 years, percussionist John Santos has gained world-wide renown and acclaim as one of the great composers and bandleaders in the Afro-Cuban jazz idiom. The four-time Grammy nominee is one of the foremost proponents of Afro-Latin music in the world today, known for his innovative use of its traditional musical forms and instruments. Santos has performed, recorded and studied with acknowledged Afro-Latin and Jazz masters such as Israel "Cachao" Lopez,Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Bebo Valdes, Armando Peraza, Eddie Palmieri, Carlos "Patato" Valdes, Francisco Aguabella, Max Roach, Steve Turre and Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros.

Born in San Francisco to Cape Verdean and Puerto Rican parents, Santos was exposed to a fertile musical environment which shaped his career in a unique way. As director of Orquesta Tipica Cienfuego and the award-winning Orquesta Batachanga, he was of the pioneers of salsa to the San Francisco Bay Area. As leader of the seminal jazz group Machete Ensemble, Santos was also instrumental in bringing traditional Afro-Cuban and other Latin American music to the area. Santos is also respected as one of the top writers, teachers and historians in the field, having conducted numerous lectures, workshops and clinics in the Americas and Europe, as well as writing about the music for numerous publications.

Santos also has a prolific career as a distinguished and creative multi-percussionist and recording artist, mainly with Machete Ensemble. His diverse credits also include working with Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Tito Puente, Bobby Hutcherson, the Cuban band Grupo Mezcla, Lalo Schifrin, Irakere, Santana, Cal Tjader, Danilo Pérez, Ignacio Berroa, Omar Sosa and Jon Jang. In 2006, after a 20-year run, Santos disbanded the Machete Ensemble and is now playing with a jazz sextet which. comprised of some of his old comrades from that group, has released Filosofia Caribena, Vol.1 (2011) and Filosfofia Caribena, Vol. 2. (2013). Both of these recordings, released on Santos' Machete Records, are an homage to the richness of the Caribbean and Latin American cultures, to which Santos refers as Creole culture.

Santos was also named Resident Artistic Director of the SFJAZZ Center for the year 2012-2013, an honor shared with Bill Frisell, Jason Moran, and Regina Carter.

All About Jazz: What made you decide to be a musician?

John Santos: My dad, from Cape Verde, was a musician who played guitar and accordion; In addition, both of my grandfathers, from Cape Verdean and Puerto Rican, were musicians. So, I kinda fell into the family business.

AAJ: What led you to playing congas and other percussion?

JS: In African and Caribbean cultures the drums lead you into a spiritual path as they are used not only for playing for entertainment purposes but also for religious and spiritual ceremonies. In addition to playing congas and other drums, I am also trained to perform on the Nigerian bata drums for religious services.

AAJ: Your first band, Orchestra Tipica Cienfuegos, was considered to be the top Latin dance band during the'70s, What set it apart from other Latin groups?

JS: Tipica Cienfuegos was structured as a charanga orchestra, a traditional Afro-Cuban setup which is comprised of violinists and a flutist instead of horns. However, instead of playing the traditional danzones, we played more modern dance music like Los Van Van. Now, with Orchestra Batachanga I mixed the rhythms of the bata with modern Latin dance music.

AAJ: You have performed with practically every master Afro-Cuban drummer who has roamed the earth during the last 40 years. Who were the ones who had the deepest influence on your music?

JS: It is hard to say, because all of them were great. In the Bay Area, we were blessed to have Armando Peraza and Francisco Aguabella living here. I also count Mongo Santamaria, Candido Camero, Carlos "Patato" Valdés and Julito Collazo among my major influences. Other musicians whom I count as influences as well as mentors include the great Afro-Cuban bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez, trumpeter Alfredo "Chocolate" Armenteros and the great timbalero, Orestes Vilato, with whom I was blessed to have played for many years. In the jazz idiom, I was blessed to have Dizzy Gillespies a mentor, as well as having the opportunity to play with him. I also had admiration for Max Roach, Steve Turré, John Handy, McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson.


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